Monday 30 May 2011

Comrades 2011

Well, not quite to plan this time around. Comrades is always such an overwhelming experience and that was the case again, but this time in the sense that the race humbled me and left me heartbroken after spending so long focusing on it.

My race went bad after around 35km before even hitting the marathon mark and I could only jog from that point, losing motivation given that a sub 6h time was clearly not on the cards, never mind a gold medal for top 10. Luckily I perked up a bit nearer the end after seeing Kami Semick charging along as if it was the first few miles and with a shot of chasing down the Russian twins for a win. 6:25 was my final time, which was well off the 5:51 needed to get a gold medal this year.

But the real story, which I'm really glad I got to see first hand, was the set of amazing performances by the top Brits and Americans. Before I mention the names and times, I'll just lay out the stats of the course so people can appreciate how good their performances were.

  • 87km (54 miles) long, from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in South Africa
  • 7,000ft of ascent and 5,000ft of descent along the road between those cities (reverse those numbers when it's the down run in every other year)
  • Up to $100,000 available for a win, based on sponsor/time/local bonuses and plenty more for the rest of the top 10s
  • Men's course record of 5:24 and women's of 6:09
  • 19,000 entrants with the deepest and strongest ultra field in the world
  • Strict cut-offs with a finish line cut-off of exactly 12 hours, not a second longer
So, it's a tough race and those roads hammer the legs over the distance, especially at the pace the leaders go at. The men's winner was Stephen Muzhingi for the third year in a row, in 5:32 and the women's winner was Elena Nurgalieva for her sixth and slowest win in 6:24, with her twin sister Olesya a few seconds behind. These twins have marathon PBs under 2:30 and have won eight of the last nine Comrades, just being beaten once.

However, the twins were supposedly a bit tired from racing very hard at the Two Oceans 56km race five weeks ago (it's always over Easter which was particularly late this year) and they did look slightly weary when I ran with them for about 10k in the latter stages of the race before dropping off their pace. Kami Semick (The North Face) was chasing them hard and finished in third, only two minutes back in 6:26. If it had been a 100k, I'm certain she'd have caught them. And fellow Brit, Ellie Greenwood (Montrail), was overtaking people through the second half to finish in 6:32 for fourth, who may also have caught them given more distance. These two are on fire and now have a 1-1 record against each other after Ellie's win at American River 50 last month. Anyone want to bet who'll win their next showdown at Western States?

Kami and Ellie are both former 100k World Champions (in 2009 and 2010, respectively), but we also had the 2006 winner running since Lizzie Hawker (also a Brit running for The North Face) was out there and took it out hard. Lizzie was in third in the early stages but fell back a little to finish in seventh in 6:48. So Kami gained a position from her 2010 fourth place and Lizzie was one lower after sixth last year. Looks like it was a hell of a race out there and much closer than usual. I think all three ladies will be back to take down those Russians and it'll be good to see those battles over the coming years.

On the men's side, Mike Wardian and myself (both for The North Face) had our sights set on gold medals. The girls were all but certain to break the top 10, but the exact positions were what made it interesting. But Mike and I were 14 and 13 minutes off a gold last year, respectively, and even 10th would be a huge victory (or ideally both of us top 10). Mike had a storming race and our pre-race estimate of needing to run sub 5:50 to get a gold wasn't far off. Mike had the painful pleasure of coming 11th in 5:52, just over a minute off 10th. That is a ridiculously good run, even given his pace at the shorter distances. I'm pretty sure he'll go for and get a gold next year.

So, that's just the top end of the field and the remaining thousands included tales of victory and despair as people hit goals they'd never thought they'd achieve (for many, just to finish in the 12 hours is the pinnacle of years of training and attempts).

One other excellent British run was from Scot (hmmm...I think you're really English) Jo Zakrzewski who ran 7:14 in her first ultra (excluding Atacama Crossing). World domination for the British ladies? Also, Amy Sproston (Montrail) squeezed in the race while on a work trip to Africa and knocked out a 7:34, just missing the silver medal cut-off at 7:30. She'll be yet another person attempting the Comrades/Western States double.

All these people had fantastic Comrades runs on a course that was hillier than I remembered from my 2008 up run. It wasn't my day and the seven consecutive weekends of marathons or ultras at a decent effort level, which culminated in Miwok 100k three weeks ago, just pushed me over the edge of overtraining. My legs have felt heavy for a while, but particularly over the last month so it just made it an impossible struggle to get them to function well. Even with everything going perfectly it's a big ask for me to run fast enough for a gold and my marathon time (2:32) is significantly slower than the other guys who aim for that.

I wanted it so much and was overzealous with my training, but I'll learn my lesson and regroup. One day I know I can get a gold and it'll mean so very much to me. The race is like no other and always lives up to its billing as the 'ultimate human race.' Full results here and you can filter it for Americans, Aussies, Brits or whatever you're searching for.

It was a great trip and a lot of fun (for the most part), especially meeting old and new friends from around the world. Special thanks goes to Dave Pearse for being the best host and crew in the world, even when doing so for more people than can fit in his house.

I also ran to support the Starfish Greathearts Foundation, which helps AIDS orphans around the Comrades course amongst other places (see my Miwok posting). Brits can donate here and everyone else here. Any donation is much appreciated.


  1. unlucky Ian, glad to see you are already planning for the next one, that is the spirit!! will look forward to a gold medal post in the future!

  2. Ian,

    I have been following your blog very closely after the RR100, and I really appreciate your approach to training and racing. Going out hard in every race is something I myself strive to do, and I am well aware that this inevitably brings disappointments. But disappointments could also be a good thing in the long run (pun intended).

    I have read all of your past posts about Comrades, and I know this is a particularly bitter pill to swallow. But there is really nothing you can do, other than to let go, try to learn the lesson (I never get that part in fewer than dozen attempts), and focus on resting and preparing for the next one.

    I hope to meet you in person one of these days, even if I only get to hang with you for a mile or two. Take care, and good luck at Western States!

  3. You get to have way to much fun, Ian. We are all envious. We will be rooting for you at WS. See you at Duncan Canyon for some 1980's themed aid from Quicksilver RC.

  4. Ian, focusing on Comrades, really, with all your Spring races not to mention the upcoming Western States?? Sub-6 for more than a double marathon, with significant cumulative elevation, you'll have to ease on your schedule next year... (oh, well, who am I to give advice in this area anyway... ;-).
    Seriously, you have a phenomenal season and it's always fun to see you having fun while running, take care and taper a bit before the Auburn track meet (or should I say, snowshoe race...?).

  5. Congrats anyway on a super run! Wish you all the best for WS - I'm sure you'll do brilliantly!

  6. Hey Ian, AWESOME effort this weekend- congratulations! Don't underestimate your great achievement, you did brilliantly! Thanks for sharing your thoughts - Comrades is truly a wonderful race, I did it last year and I am hoping to do it next year (although probably much slower than 6hrs!)- The crowds are just so unbelieveable and the atmosphere is second to none. You are inspirational and I look forward to reading about your next adventures! Best of luck!

  7. Watched the race while studying early Sunday morning & when I saw your splits I thought you may not be having a good day. Good to see you finished it though & like you said in your report there will be other opportunities to get a gold. Rest up & give WS your best shot. Should be a great race, Brits have a great chance of making Top 3 in mens & womens

  8. Thanks everyone for the support. It's always tough to take the results that don't go to plan, although this was still almost half an hour quicker than my time in the last up run so am taking it that way instead. It'll just make that perfect run in future that bit sweeter. See you all at Western States.